Digital footprints are almost impossible to erase. At least, it seems that way right now.
But thousands of years down the line, how will people be able to see old photos we’ve captured, or open old files we’d written — especially if the computer systems we’re using now are completely obsolete by then?
Even if Google and Apple don’t exist in the year 2115, how can we ensure our files, photos, movies, and more, can be preserved for ages to come? How can we future-proof our content for generations way down the line?
“That’s the key issue here: How do I make sure in the distant future the standards are still known that can correctly interpret this carefully constructed object?” Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the internet, said in a BBC interview.
Cerf was instrumental in creating the internet. In the 1970s, he co-designed the TCP/IP protocol suite, which basically specifies how computers talk to one another through the network. You can read more about his work here.
Cerf recently spoke about this topic at the annual conference of the American Association of the Advancement of Science, warning that if we don’t move now, we risk losing all the data we’ve created in the 21st century. He says this inability to get to the data in an old floppy disk, or even an old version of Adobe Photoshop, could result in a digital dark age.
This problem already exists to some degree. Last year, it took a group of hackers to decode some old tape decks from a lunar orbiter mission run in the 1960s — as Wired points out, “the drives had to be rebuilt and in some cases completely re-engineered using instruction manuals or the advice of people who used to service them, and “the data they recovered then had to be demodulated and digitized, which added more layers of technical difficulties.”
Cerf doesn’t want this decoding process for old technologies to be so complicated in the future. So he created his own solution, which he called the “digital vellum.”
“The idea is to capture the digital environment in which those bits were created, and to make it possible, a thousand years from now, to recreate that digital environment so that the files we created are interpreted as music or images or text or video games or anything else can be reproduced in the distant future.”
Cerf describes the digital vellum working like the Internet Archive website, which takes snapshots of webpages for preservation’s sake. Here’s Cerf from his BBC interview:
Imagine you are sitting here, maybe you’re using Photoshop and touching up the pictures and adding things. Imagine for a moment what’s actually going on: You have your computer running, it has the operating system it has the Photoshop application running on it, and your digitized image is sitting there.
Imagine for a moment we could take an X-ray picture of everything that is in place — not just the picture bits, but the operating system bits and the application bits and the underlying machine description bits — and we take this X-ray image and we package it all up and hang onto that, put it wherever we need to, maybe multiple copies, hoping one of them will last maybe a period of time. So this snapshot idea is quite clever and it captures everything you need to know to reproduce the environment to interpret the picture. And that object, this digital object, is something that could be transported around [from one cloud to another cloud or another machine].
Cerf says his digital vellum idea is “quite achievable, as long as we standardize the descriptions.”
“That’s the solution, at least in the first iteration,” he says. “And I think it’s a very clever one.”